Hunter Mahan Breaks the Spell in New Jersey

Hey everyone, this is bonus material from my original manuscript of the book Slaying the Tiger. This text didn’t find its way into the book, but I’m making it available to you, my loyal readers. TBR is the only place you’ll find this material.  If you like this, you’ll find plenty more to like in the book, available at this link. This installment was written after Hunter Mahan’s performance at the Barclays in last year’s FedExCup playoffs. It includes quite a bit of background on Mahan, including his complicated relationship with his father, that was cut from the book.

The FedExCup Playoffs, Part Two: Hunter Breaks the Spell in New Jersey 

In 2014 the FedExCup began just outside Jersey City, at Ridgewood Country Club in Paramus, a woodland course dominated by massive oaks and beeches with trunks so gray that they almost look plastic. The famous architect A.W. Tillinghast designed the 27-hole course in 1929, and all 27 holes remain. When the Tour comes into town, though, they pick out the 18 toughest holes and create a synthetic course, leaving behind anything bland or easy. It’s also very, very long, with three par-5s topping out at over 580 yards, including the 626-yard 13th, which forces even the likes of Rory McIlroy and Bubba Watson to lay up.

Early in the week, on the putting green outside the incredible Tudor-style clubhouse, with its brick chimneys and dormer windows and massive conical roof, I witnessed an interesting spectacle. Ian Poulter was walking by on his way to practice, and when the fans screamed for him, he slowed down to sign a few autographs. Poulter didn’t sign in the normal way, though—with his earphones in, music blasting, he simply grabbed a placard or hat or whatever was handed to him, continued walking down the row as he scrawled his name, then reached out to hand the object back to whoever felt like taking it from him—ideally, it would be the same person who gave it to him in the fist place, but Poulter didn’t seem to care. He’d simply grab the next item, keep walking, and hand it over, and so on. In this way, he satisfied roughly one of out of every ten fans, and never even looked at them once—a true prima donna performance.

New Jersey, not to be outdone, struck back with its own unique flavor later in the week. As players signed autographs and held interviews just off the clubhouse porch, a man with long hair, a Rutgers jersey, and a bucket hat decided he was going to harass Justin Rose.

“What do you got there, a 30?” he shouted. Rose looked back, puzzled.

“Your waist size!” the man continued. Rose just smiled uncomfortably, unsure where this conversation was going. The man waved a hand at him dismissively, then turned his attention to Rose’s clubs

“Taylor Made?!” he yelled, now being egged on by the gallery. “Those pants are tailor-made! In London!”

Rose thought maybe he could cure the man of his pants obsession by signing an autograph, so he made his way over, still smiling. The man handed him the bucket hat, watched him sign, then stared in mock disbelief at the signature.

“Hey!” he exclaimed in shock, now playing to the crowd. “He signed my hat ‘Pete Rose!’”

As the laughter rose, Rose’s nervous grin grew wider, and he anxiously began plotting his escape as his agent hovered nearby, clearing a path.

“Is that a 34 inseam?” the man went on, now back on the pants. “What are you rocking there?”

With one last grin, Rose was away, probably determined never to return to New Jersey as long as he lived.


Rory McIlroy shot an opening round 74, which was no surprise considering the energy he had spent winning two majors and a WGC event over the past month. Immediately following his victory at Valhalla, he flew to New York City, where he and a posse that included his manager, chef, and some childhood friends immediately went out to a Chelsea night club. The party continued throughout Monday, according the New York Post, and ended 24 hours later, around 2:30 a.m., at another Chelsea club called “Avenue.” He then flew back to England, where that Saturday he paraded the Claret Jug around Old Trafford, the famous stadium home of Manchester United.

Then it was back to New York, where he appeared with Tiger Woods on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and stirred up the slightest bit of controversy with a quote that seemed innocuous on the surface—“makes me appreciate how hard he worked, and how dominant a figure he was in our game”—but that raised eyebrows for its use of the past tense. Nor did Tiger let Rory’s recent accomplishments go unchecked—in their private moments, he told him that he wasn’t done yet, and he was going to make it hard for him to win the career slam at Augusta in the spring.

After that whirlwind tour, he was due for a letdown at the Barclays, and it came with Thursday’s 74. He struck back with a 65 on Friday, but a 70 on Saturday placed him five shots below the leaders, with plenty stacked between them.

On Sunday, the co-leaders at 9-under were a pair of men who could desperately use a win—Jason Day, coming off his cursed season, and Jim Furyk, who had threatened again and again but routinely faltered at the critical moment. Furyk hadn’t won an event since 2010, despite playing excellent golf that had kept him near the top of the sport well into his 40s. His most recent chance, at the Canadian Open in July, was probably the most difficult—he looked like a sure winner until Tim Clark chased him down with a 30 on the back nine, pipping him at the line by a stroke.

Day didn’t inspire a ton of confidence either. Despite having his best chance to win since the Accenture Match Play in February, didn’t sound like a 54-hole co-leader on Saturday. He felt that his game was still just slightly off during the third round—especially with the driver—and you could sense his anxiety heading into Sunday.

“So I’m going to do some practice, try and sort something out there,” he told us, after he finished. “Try to straighten it out a little bit. I know I’m a good ball‑striker and I hit it very good. I just have to believe in myself. I think that’s the biggest thing is to go out there and really have the belief in myself that I can compete and play against the best players in the world and win, is what I need to try and get through my mind and that’s the last thing.”

Furyk gave his usual entertaining press conference on Saturday, and spoke eloquently about getting old in a young man’s game.

“When I look at the guys out here that honestly, I’m old enough to be their father,” he said, “and a lot of times I’m sitting in the family room and we’re talking about, you know, there’s been subjects…I look back and go, wow, that was a long time ago that things like that crossed my mind.”

On Sunday, both players made two early birdies before bogeying the fourth, and at the turn, Day led the tournament at -11, one ahead of Furyk. It lasted just two more holes, at which point a bogey put him a shot behind Hunter Mahan, who had made birdie on 11 to edge into the lead.


Monte Mahan, a surfer kid and former LAPD undercover cop turned high school golf coach and teaching pro, started his son Hunter playing at age nine, when the family still lived in southern California. It was the beginning of a tricky relationship between father, son, and sport. In fact, Mahan was one of the few golfers I spoke to all year who admitted that he was often annoyed with his father, a helicopter parent who was so invested in his son’s success that he sometimes overstepped his bounds, placing undue pressure on the boy and even breaching golf etiquette in public.

“He was frustrating at times,” Mahan said. “My dad was very involved. He wanted the best for me, and at times it was too much for him. He just tried too hard.”

For the elder Mahan, long-term thinking was difficult; he worried that if his son faltered at a young age, he’d continue to fall behind his peers, fail to get a college scholarship, and sabotage his professional dreams—dreams which were equally Monte’s. He gave all of his time to his son, and drove him hard on the golf course, but that passion came with its blind spots. It wasn’t in Monte’s toolbox to let Hunter fail and pick himself up, or accept the usual wavering focus and temporary skill setbacks that all kids experience. It didn’t help that he had a room-filling personality that contrasted with his son’s natural reserve.

Monte hovered, micromanaging his son’s career and refusing to retreat an inch. In a story written by Golf Digest’s Jaime Diaz, he admitted he was too hard on his son, even if his intentions were good, and Hunter recalled how his dad would “throw his arms up and stomp around” when he hit a bad shot. He bonded on the road with Sean O’Hair, another player with an overbearing father.

This, unfortunately, is a textbook story in the golf world, and it almost always ends in player burnout. It’s a testament to how much Hunter shared the same goals, if not the same approach, that he did not.

He first beat his dad at age 12, and a year later the family moved to the Dallas area. There, Hunter’s junior career took off. In 1999, he won a Texas 5A state championship, earned AJGA Player of the Year status, won the prestigious U.S. Junior Amateur against future pro Camillo Villegas, and became the no. 1 junior player in the world. A recruiting battle ensued, and Mahan eventually chose USC—a shock to Oklahoma State, considered the frontrunners—where he was named Pac-10 freshman of the year.

Still, he wasn’t happy. His game was solid, but he was angry and overly self-critical on the course. Nor was the pressure from his father ebbing. The spring of his freshman year, playing at a tournament called The Maxwell in Oklahoma run by the AJGA, Monte approached him after his tee shot on the tenth and kept repeating, “Son, you just got to set it and go. Set it and go.”

Any kind of coaching during a round is a violation, and the tournament director, a rookie, called Stephen Hamblin and told him what had happened. Hamblin came out to the course, found Monte, and told him he’d be docking Hunter two strokes for receiving advice. He took the penalty in stride, but the telling detail here is that after the round, Hamblin was approached USC coach Kurt Schuette, who thanked him for issuing the penalty; he hoped it might help him deal with Monte in the future. Schuette wasn’t alone; Kevin Stadler, Mahan’s teammate, also found Hamblin after the round.

“Thank God someone finally did it,” he said.

At the end of that year, Mahan transferred from USC to Oklahoma State in order to play under legendary coach Mike Holder. Mike McGraw, an assistant who would later take over the program and coach Rickie Fowler, saw where Mahan’s desire threatened to overwhelm him. The emotion ate him up, and hurt his game. What McGraw saw was an immensely talented 19-year-old who was tired of himself and tired of the game. Early on, Holder, an imposing man in both personality and size, took Hunter aside and explained an important point: Fewer people care about your golf than you think. You care. Your parents care. I care a little, but I’ll survive without you. Your teammates care, but deep down they all want to beat you. That’s it. So stop playing like everybody cares, and just go out and play golf.

Holder didn’t suffer fools, and he was able to bring both Monte and Hunter in line. His personal gravitas allowed him to take the authoritative approach, and his record didn’t hurt either—he would retire in 2005 with eight national titles, 12 players of the year, 112 All-Americans. It worked­—Mahan’s on-course antics, including the destructive anger, was tamped down, and he held his player accountable for his actions. There was nothing indirect about Holder’s approach; he wouldn’t need an AJGA official to do his dirty work for him.

Holder told Mahan that he had to give the illusion of being in control, and that even if he felt himself in turmoil, he had to fake it on the outside. He explained in blunt terms that if Mahan failed to solve his problem, he’d never have the career he wanted in golf.

Holder’s leadership had the intended effect—Mahan gave Oklahoma State two great years, finishing as a first team All-American and Big 12 player of the year in 2002 and 2003, and even became a leader himself, albeit the quiet, follow-my-example kind. He turned pro in ’03, and after making four cuts in eight events after the U.S. Open, he finished 16th at Q-School in December to earn his PGA Tour card.

He finished second at the Reno-Tahoe Open in 2004 and managed to keep his card by finishing 100th on the money list, but 2005’s 131st place finish dropped him below the threshold, and he was forced to survive Q-School again in order to get back on the Tour in 2006. He passed, and his position improved in 2006 due to a t-2 at the Buick Open, but he was floundering in his game and losing the perspective he had gained at Oklahoma State.

“I put so much into it every day,” he told me of those three years. “I put way too much pressure on myself and I tried way too hard. But I didn’t feel like I was building myself to be great…I was just trying to patch things together and get the quick fix. When I got on Tour I thought it was going to be easier, and I felt like I was going to play better. It was too big for me.”

He had worked himself so hard that friendships and romantic relationships had been sacrificed, and he wasn’t seeing the dividends. His fellow pros would routinely tell him how good he was, and how a breakthrough would happen for him soon, but he couldn’t see it and he didn’t believe it. The way he described his emotions at that time sounds a lot like depression—even the good shots didn’t give him pleasure, and the bad shots just reinforced his belief that he wasn’t good enough. Finally, in a 2007 U.S. Open sectional qualifier, a sports psychologist named Neale Smith who was caddying for him got so fed up with his negative energy that he forced Mahan to fist pump after every shot. It felt stupid to him, but he obliged, almost desperate to find something that would jolt him out of his funk. After opening with a 73, he followed with a 63, breaking the course record and earning his way into the major.

He finished tied for 13th at the U.S. Open, and a week later, at the Travelers Championship, he opened with a 62 and closed with a 65 to earn his way into a playoff with Jim Williamson. He birdied the first extra hole, and almost without warning his long drought was over—he’d won a PGA Tour event. Three top tens followed, including a t-6 at the British Open, and at the end of the year Jack Nicklaus made him a captain’s pick at the President’s Cup, which the United States won.

It’s hard to fathom how a few shows of fake enthusiasm could completely turn his season—and career—around, but the revelation went deeper. For the first time, he truly began to appreciate the idea that he didn’t have to be perfect to succeed, and that when the golfers he admired won tournaments, they weren’t perfect either. Speaking with young players throughout the year, I came across this idea again and again, beginning with Chris Kirk in November—perfection isn’t possible, or necessary, and anyone who pursues perfection is going to burn himself out. All of Mahan’s hours on the range, he realized, had been counterproductive; he was overworked to the point that he had stopped trusting himself and his instincts. It’s hard lesson to learn, because most golfers are workaholics, and at the first sign of struggle every fiber of their being screams, “Work harder!” Some never learn, and they play themselves right into obscurity. For those who finally have their epiphany, though, the turnaround can be drastic.

It’s also hard to ignore something else that happened in 2007–finally, 25 years after his son’s birth, Monte Mahan backed off. It’s not clear whether it was his choice, or whether Hunter, in conjunction with his team, told him the time had come. In either case, Hunter found a new freedom, and a year later, Monte moved back to southern California.

He didn’t win again in 2008, but he did earn $2.2 million with a consistent season, which was good enough for a captain’s spot on the Ryder Cup team at Valhalla. As he had done at the U.S. Junior Amateur and the U.S. Amateur, Mahan proved his excellence at match play golf. Teaming with Justin Leonard and Phil Mickelson, he won two matches on Friday, earned two halves on Saturday, and halved Paul Casey in Sunday singles to earn 3.5 points in one of the rare American Ryder Cup wins of the past two decades.

He made almost $3 million in 2009, won another President’s Cup, and followed it up in 2010 by returning to the winner’s circle at the Phoenix Open and then again at the Bridgestone Invitational, a World Golf Championship event featuring 75 of the best players in the world. His 10th place finish on the money list was a career best, and heading into the 2010 Ryder Cup, his career had reached a high point.

At Celtic Manor in Wales, though, the Europeans had recovered from the Valhalla disaster and the lackluster leadership of their 2008 captain, Nick Faldo. Rain hampered the schedule in Wales, and when Sunday came to an end, the U.S. trailed 9.5—6.5 after a disastrous third session. For the first time in Ryder Cup history, the singles matches would be held on a Monday. A spirited comeback by the Americans, which included victories by Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, and Dustin Johnson, evened the score at 13.5 points with just one match on the course: Hunter Mahan vs. Graeme McDowell.

With a half point, the Americans would tie and retain the cup. Coming into the 16th hole, McDowell was 1-up as he stared down his approach shot from the fairway. With a 6-iron, he landed the ball on the left side of the green and watched it trickle toward the flag. The fans erupted as it got closer, but he’d left himself about 15 feet for his birdie. After an excellent chip from off the green, Mahan gave himself a good look at par. He waited, watching McDowell, who took his time reading the putt. When he finally struck the ball, it trickled downhill, broke to the right, and caught the edge of the hole. The crowd erupted, McDowell screamed back at them, and Mahan needed to win the final two holes for the U.S. to retain the cup.

On 17, needing a win, he found himself off the green with an easy chip to the hole. The tension was excruciating, and players from both teams looked on in front of the massive Welsh crowd. The chip needed to be perfect. Unthinkably, Mahan flubbed it. The ball barely trickled onto the green, leaving him with a long putt just to make par. McDowell ran his own birdie putt up to five feet, and when Mahan missed the twisting par putt, he took off his hat and offered his hand to McDowell. The Europeans had won back the Cup.

For Mahan, it became a defining moment, and the one by which most casual golf fans identified him. It didn’t matter that he’d been incredibly successful in match play, or that he’d go on to win one title and 11 straight matches at the Accenture Match Play championship—the missed chip was the choke that lost the Americans the Cup.

“You can call it embarrassing if you want,” Mahan told me (for the record, I hadn’t), “because it felt like that. But it’s hard to say that’s a bad moment because I was playing in the Ryder Cup in the last group and had a chance to win, and to be in those moments is pretty fun.”

It sounds like good perspective, but the truth of the matter was made clear in the post-match press conference, when Mahan sat with his teammates and tried to face the media. He’s not a particularly emotional person when it comes to the press, nor a tremendously friendly one—everything takes on the same flat affect, delivered with narrow eyes and a thin smirk. Which made it so surprising when he could only get through half of his answer.

“I’m proud to be part of this team,” he began. “It’s a close team. And, uh…”

He stared at the microphone, unable to continue. When the tears began to fall, he rubbed at his eye with a thumb while Phil Mickelson took the microphone and saved him. Later, he tried again, talking about his birdie on 15 to narrow the deficit, but again words failed him, and a slight whimper came out instead. Zach Johnson patted him on the back, Mahan took a sip of water, and started to sob.

He remained in the top 15 of the money list over the next two seasons, winning the Shell Houston Open and the Accenture Match Play Championship in ’12. He defeated Martin Kaymer, Lee Westwood and Rory McIlroy at the Accenture, and came back the next year to take down Kaymer and Ian Poulter on the way to making the finals, where he finally lost to Matt Kuchar. It was almost like he was conducting a one-man Ryder Cup revenge tour, but he knew as well as anyone that the stakes weren’t the same.

In 2011, he married Kandi, a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader. Two years later, he started the RBC Canadian Open with a 67-64, taking a lead after two rounds. That’s when the word came from Texas: His wife was going into labor. He withdrew on Saturday, flew home, and was there on Sunday morning to see the birth of Zoe, his daughter.

He earned more than $3 million again that season, but coming into 2014, it had been almost two years since his last win. When we spoke, he identified that as his main goal. And what else? He loves cars, and watching sports, and being away from golf when he needs to clear his brain. Something I asked him reminded of a question he’d heard the other day, the old one about which people, alive or dead, would make up your ideal foursome. He chose Jay-Z, Tom Brady, and Duane Johnson (aka “The Rock”)—three men who, in his mind, came from nothing to be wildly successful. Something about people who overcome serious obstacles, the kind he never faced, strikes him as powerful.


Like Day and Furyk, Mahan hadn’t had the best luck on Sunday, and his own winning drought extended back to April 2012, with endless close calls that came up short. If that dry stretch bothered him in New Jersey, though, he didn’t show it—instead, he began to light up the scoreboard. While Furyk slowed to an agonizing pace, as he always did under pressure, backing off putts and reading greens obsessively, Mahan moved full speed head, knocking in a 27-foot at the lengthy 13th moved him to 12-under. At the par-3 15th, he hit his approach to 11 feet and converted another birdie, and followed that up with a monster 336-yard drive on 16, which left him a short wedge into the pin. That shot stopped three feet away, and he was now at -14, well ahead of the field.

Behind him, as Furyk and Day waited to tee off on 15, a pair of drunks in a golf cart managed to hit a spectator, who went down with an ugly crunching sound and began screaming. The lush in the passenger seat fell off and was quickly tackled by a cop, who handcuffed him on the crowd. The driver took off up a hill, and though another cop chased him on foot, the incline saved the getaway attempt, and he was able to make a temporary escape as the cop lost his breath and had to slow down. It was only a momentary reprieve, though, as two marshals in a cart of their own took off in hot pursuit. His captured friend made some moaning complaint on the ground, and the detective gave a caustic Jersey laugh. “You’re embarrassed now?” he asked.

The delay couldn’t have helped Day or Furyk, but it scarcely mattered. On 17, still red-hot and in the shadow of the sky-high tulip trees on the right side of the fairway, Mahan laid up on the long par-5 and put his third shot 22 feet from the hole. Looking fierce in his sunglasses and flat-billed cap, he marched up to the green and drained the putt to give himself a three-shot lead on the field. Nothing could stop him now—not even the very strange fan on 18 who held a stuffed Geico lizard and wouldn’t stop yelling, “it’s the Geico Gecco for Morgan Hoffmann!” as he thrust the animal at Mahan’s young playing partner, a New Jersey native. He had to pitch out from the rough, but a bogey was good enough to win going away—his five birdies in a seven-hole stretch had crushed the field.

Mahan’s interviews went about as expected—with his slight nasal twang, you got the sense that he might have been a bit nerdy as a kid, despite the manly stoicism he evinced on the course. He seemed to vaguely resent the media, and gave answers that were calculated and boring, with the word “obviously” making an appearance in just about every sentence, and very rarely in the right context. Nevertheless, it was a big moment—he shot up to the top of the FedEx Cup standings, and gave Tom Watson a good reason to make him a Ryder Cup captain’s pick a week down the line.

Outside, as the crowds began to filter out, New Jersey got in one last parting shot before the Tour left for another year. A fan spotted Mahan holding his young daughter, and made what has to be the most bizarre request I’d heard all year:

“Can I sign your baby?”

(Excerpted from the original manuscript of Slaying the Tiger.)

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2 Responses to Hunter Mahan Breaks the Spell in New Jersey

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  1. Jack Garvey says: